The Little Red Buckets
by Lynda M. Nelson
A very poor couple moved into a small tarpaper shack up the hill from our farm when I was just eight years old. They were nice old people, Mr. And Mrs. Nie, and they’d seen a lot of hard times. Mr. Nie was a very hard worker, but his luck just seemed to run to the bad side, Well, my father and mother, being true Christians, took it upon themselves to help the Nies.
Though Mr. Nie was too old to do heavy work anymore, it didn’t take Father long to discover that he was still a skilled leather craftsman and wood carver so Father found odd jobs he could hire Mr. Nie to do.
The day after father hired Mr. Nie, Mother loaded two little red lard buckets full of extra food she had and sent me up the hill to deliver the food to the old folks. The Nies had moved into the old sheepherder’s cottage just where the hill topped out and the road crossed the creek bed.
I wasn’t too excited about trekking up that mountain road. I went, though, and thereafter, it was my duty every day to take two red buckets full of food to the Nie home.
Each year on December 23rd, Mother would get out all the red pails she had saved and fill them with the special treats she always made at Christmas. Then early on the morning of Christmas Eve day, my whole family, Mother, Father, Ralph, Zella and I, would squeeze into our little red and black sleigh and ride around to the homes of our few neighbors. It usually took us an hour of riding in the creaky old sleigh to get between houses. We froze, but it was fun anyway.
At each house, our nearly frozen family would climb out of the sleigh and sing Christmas carols at the door of the home while our teeth chattered and our knees wobbled. By the time we could feel the blood flowing back into our feet and hands the front door would be open and a cheerful family would invite us inside for a warm drink.
It was almost full dark when we drove up the hill to sing carols to old Mr. And Mrs. Nie. Old Mr. Nie opened the door and stepped outside. We children tumbled off of the sleigh and joined up in our chorus line, in a hurry to be done and on our way.
Old Mrs. Nie came out of the house and joined her husband to listen to us sing. When we were done, Mother and Father handed buckets full of goodies with new socks hidden in the bottom to Mrs. Nie. She took them and simply said ‘Thank you.’ Then she said, ‘Wait.’
She turned and hobbled quickly into the house. When she came out, she carried a box in her hand. You could have knocked me over with a feather when she handed me the little box.
In a voice choked with emotion, she said, ‘My mum gave this to me. She’s real special to me and I want you should have her. You’n’ your red buckets have brung Christmas up the hill to us ever’ day. Thank ya, Jenny.
That night while Father finished reading the Christmas story, I climbed into my mother’s lap and sat and carefully opened the little wooden box.
I was so disappointed when I lifted the lid, because it looked as though the box was only filled with dingy, matted cotton. But Mother gently pinched the cotton between her fingers and carefully lifted it up. There inside, nestled among the matted cotton bed, was a very delicate, very beautiful figure of an angel. She was wrought from purest crystal and seemed to gather all the light in the room within her tiny form. Gently I lifted her from the box. Her wings were wispy feathers of sparkling crystal, rising delicately on either side of her body as though fanning the heavenly air. Her glimmering dress swept back, and then swirled around to her right side. As I turned her back and forth, she caught and reflected a myriad of sparkling lights. Stunned with awe, I held the angel up to show my mother, only to find tears overflowing from her eyes.
Father paused in his reading and turned to Matthew to read about the Wise Men. ‘And when they were come into the house, they saw the young child with Mary his mother, and fell down, and worshiped him: and when they had opened their treasures, they presented unto him gifts; gold, and frankincense, and myrrh.’ My mother’s eyes were sparkling with tears and her voice wavered a bit when she whispered, ‘Jenny, this is a treasure both precious and rare. Mrs. Nie has given you her finest possession. Always cherish it, my little Jenny, and remember why she gave this to you.’
One day, Mrs. Nie invited me in and told me I reminded her of her daughter who died just after she turned ten years old. It was such a sad story that I didn’t know what to say, except that I was sorry. When I left she smiled at me, and thanked me for coming.
I asked Mrs. Nie about the angel. She told me the crystal angel had been part of her family for three generations, passed from mother to daughter. The legend said that a guardian spirit followed the angel, but Mrs. Nie didn’t believe the legend when her mother gave her the angel, but after her daughter, Emily died, she was sad. She said, ‘Several days after we buried Emily I knelt beside her bed, begging God to tell my why my little girl had been taken away. I pulled open the drawer of Emily’s nightstand to get out a handkerchief to wipe my tears. There was the little crystal angel I had given to Emily only weeks before. Ever so gently, I lifted her up and held her to the light. A bright shaft of sunlight beamed through her and the most beautiful ethereal glow filled my hands and my heart as a heavenly light radiated through her and into me. I felt the presence of my guardian angel. Then, as now, I believed my guardian angel was my dear, sweet Emily, staying close to watch over me.
My heart was racing when I left Mrs. Nie’s house that afternoon. I raced to look at the angel, but nothing happened.
In the spring of 1918, my brother Ralph announced that he was going off to fight in the Great War. I remember so well his red hair and freckles and serious blue eyes as he announced his decision from the kitchen doorway. For the next two days, Mother and Father tried everything they could to change his mind, but no amount of begging had any effect on Ralph. He loved his country and felt a strong desire to do his patriotic duty, so off he went to war.
One August day a man in uniform came and handed our father a yellow envelope. Ralph was dead. Mother was devastated. We all felt his loss keenly, but she took his death harder than the rest of us. The army sent Ralph home to us in a sealed casket. We buried him in the family plot.
I told Mrs. Nie all about Ralph, shared with her all my memories of him. She
Knew how it helped me to talk. I told her how his red hair would shine in the sunshine and look like fire sometimes, and how his blue eyes would flash in anger or twinkle with humor. I cried when I told her how much we loved him and missed him.
Well, somewhere around the middle of October, Mrs. Nie caught a real bad cold. She was laid up in bed for a couple of weeks. During that time I didn’t get to take the little red buckets full of food up to her house. Instead, my mother would go up there a couple of times a day with medicine and all sorts of things to try to get Mrs. Nie better. l was ecstatic when Mama told me I could start taking the little red buckets back up to Ms. Nie again.
Mrs. Nie coughed a lot after that but in between her coughing spells, we still talked a lot and we decided we’d make my mother a wonderful Christmas present. She called her husband in and we discussed our idea with him and he eagerly agreed to help. Even though Mrs. Nie was sick, she worked hard with Mr. Nie and me to finish the Christmas present on time and we finished it three days before Christmas.
Christmas Eve morning a bad snowstorm hit. I stewed and fretted all day. How was I going to get our present down here to give to Mother tomorrow for Christmas? The storm just got worse and worse. It was the longest day of my life! I knew we could give Mother our present after the snowstorm cleared, but somehow it just wouldn’t be the same.
Suddenly, there was a loud knock on the kitchen door. We all lunged to our feet and rushed into the kitchen. Zella reached the door first and threw it open wide. The tattered hood on a ghostly, snow-covered figure was thrown back revealing the smiling face of Mrs. Nie. We were so shocked; no one could say a word.
Mother finally stepped forward to take her coat and gloves. I walked right up next to Ms. Nie and wrapped my arms around her slender waist, hugging her tight. There wasn’t anyone I wanted to see more tonight and I saw right off that she was carrying a large bundle. My heart leaped in my chest, I was so happy and excited.
She asked if Father would read the Christmas story again for her. As he did each word seamed to fill my heart fuller and fuller, ’til I thought I could hear no more. My eyes moved slowly from the bundle to Mrs. Nie, to my mother, to Zella, to my father, to the angel on the mantle. Slowly and deliberately my father read the final words, ‘And when they had opened their treasures, they presented unto him gifts, gold, and frankincense, and myrrh.’
Never had the Christmas story touched my heart with such force. I looked into Mrs. Nie’s eyes and saw a glow of such love and happiness that my heart nearly overflowed within me. I watched in amazement as Mrs. Nie carefully placed our gift in my mother’s hands. ‘Merry Christmas, Charlotte, from Mr. Nie, and Jenny and me.’ It was a chest fashioned of finest cedar. With exquisite care, Mr. Nie had carved an oval frame into each panel of the chest. Within each oval frame were two little red buckets, one bucket standing, the other laying on its side. They were painted the same color red as the little lard buckets Mother filled and I carried to Mrs. Nie’s house each day. Golden mountain oak leaves were carved beneath the oval frame, adding gracefully lines to the beauty of the box. Each corner of the lid and the bottom of the box was protected by brass corner brackets, molded to fit the wood and carefully nailed in place. The elegance of Mr. Nie’s skill and craftsmanship was evident in every line of Ma’s box.
As tears filled my mothers eyes, Mrs. Nie spoke gently, her voice filled with love and compassion. ‘This is your hope chest, Charlotte. Mr. Nie carved the buckets into the sides of the chest and Jenny painted them. They are to always remind you of the many little red buckets that your family have filled and sent up the hill to us. Your love and kindness and generosity meant even more to us than the food. They gave us the faith that we could survive here and they gave us hope that the future could be even better than the past. We wanted to give something back to you. With all my heart, I want this small hope chest to return to you even a small part of the hope and faith you have given to us.’
Mother held the wooden chest in her lap and gently ran her finger over the etched wood. A tender smile curved her lips and teardrops filled her eyes and slowly rolled down her cheeks.
She finally opened the lid. Nestled securely in the red velvet lining was a crystal figurine–which I had not yet seen. She reached carefully into the golden chest and brought out a glittering angel. Her hands seemed to glow from the radiance of the angel.
Mrs. Nie stared deeply into my mother’s eyes. Her voice was quiet. ‘Ralph is happy and well, Charlotte. I came to tell you so you won’t worry about him anymore. Accept this small gift from me, for you have been my angel. God bless you.
Tears filled everyone’s eyes. Mother handed the angel to my father, who held it up then gave it to Zella. Whereas my angel was fragile and ethereal, this angel radiated strength and vitality. It was the figure of a young man with short, windswept hair. For an instant as I, in turn, lifted him up and turned him to catch the light, his hair took on a red glow and I was sure I saw a sparkle of blue in his eyes.
We all turned to ask Mrs. Nie about this angel but she was gone. Father went searching outside for her, but came back having found no trace.
I walked over to my mother and gently handed her the angel. Her face was peaceful. Then I went to the mantle above the fireplace and gently lifted down the angel Mrs. Nie had given to me. As I held her up to the firelight, I saw and felt her glow, from the firelight, through the angel, and into my heart. I knew then that I had a guardian angel, just as Mother now had one. And I thought I knew who it was.
Three days later the storm blew itself out and the next day Father hooked the team up to the plow and started clearing roads. I packed two little buckets with the best food we had in the pantry, then we all jumped into the sleigh. Soon we reached the Nie’s and Mr. Nie hobbled out onto the porch, his steps slow and faltering. Mother and Father rushed to ask what was wrong.
It was then that we learned how ill Mrs. Nie had been when the storm started, how she had quickly weakened. With a shaking voice, Mr. Nie told how she had smiled at him before she died, told him how much she loved him, and promised to return when it was his time to come to the other side. Then she closed her eyes and was gone.
‘Oh, no,’ my mother cried in anguish, ‘I knew she shouldn’t have come to our home during the storm Christmas Eve.’
‘Mama couldn’t have, Mrs. Ferry,’ Mr. Nie had a strange look on his face as he gazed around at each of us. ‘She couldn’t have come to your house Christmas Eve because she…’ his voice wavered and he paused to swallow a couple of times, ‘it…it couldn’t have been Christmas Eve…because… because she passed away…early that afternoon.’
After that day, my mother never worried about Ralph again. She put the lock of Ralph’s hair into the cedar hope chest along with the beautiful boy angel. Every once in a while, I would see her open the box and take the angel out. She would hold him up to the light and a gentle smile would lift her face, for she too now had a guardian angel.